Does this mean that you should hide your book under a basket and never let it see the light? Of course not! Read on.
I met Katy in a Facebook party for another author's book, where she was a guest speaker. I won a dragon from her and we discussed princes with missing older brothers. Unfortunately, I've not yet had a chance to read her books. I plan to, though. She's a lovely lady.
Visit her on the Interwebs:
Accepting a Tough Critique
by Katy Huth Jones
A few years ago, I had what began as an encouraging interchange with a literary agent in
New York City who specialized in speculative fiction. He excitedly asked for a manuscript after I sent a query with a synopsis and sample chapter. (This was the late 1990's, when everything was done via snail mail.) Thrilled, I sent the novel. He wrote back and politely declined, saying it didn't work for him because of plot holes A, B & C, but to try again.
At the time I didn't have another completed fantasy, so I rewrote the entire manuscript, trying to follow his suggestions. This took several months, and meanwhile I was selling magazine articles on spec, so it was eighteen months before I sent the agent another query.
In his chatty reply, he said he remembered me. Even though he didn't usually take a second look at a rejected manuscript, he invited me to send it. He rejected it a second time, detailing more suggestions for revision.
Unbelievably, he let me send the third rewrite two and a half years later. This time, I received a scathing reply, by far the worst rejection out of nearly 2,000 in thirty years of writing for publication. I thought my heart would stop, he was so frustrated with me. Here are a few quotes from his letter dated July 22, 2003:
"As I've said before and I'm apparently destined to say again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again (yes he did use NINE "agains"), you've managed to write another new and improved and shorter draft that STILL doesn't manage to come up with a plot problem....Yeah, I'm being much harsher and much angrier today than I was in July 1999 or January 2001. But how much patience am I supposed to invest in how many drafts over how many years?....You ought to be asking why/how it is that you've been trying to peddle this manuscript for something like five years without getting anywhere with it, without fixing the problems I've been trying to point out for all that time....Certainly you've made some great strides line-by-line, but that doesn't forgive the fact that you're how many drafts into this novel without yet coming up with one that defines and builds on a plot problem."
Needless to say, I was crushed. I'd been published for years by then, short stories, magazine articles, and two picture books, so I knew I could write. What I didn't understand at the time of that frustrated letter was the difference between writing a short story and writing a novel.
I shelved the manuscript and focused on other writing projects. Eight years later, my father was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. I needed to pour out my grief and anguish in a socially acceptable way, so as a writing exercise I unearthed the manuscript, threw away all but the opening scene and asked the main characters, "Will you tell me your story?"
For months, chapter after chapter literally poured out, changing the characters, changing the plot, changing pretty much everything. I finally realized the agent's harsh critique had been absolutely correct. The three versions he read were filled with cardboard cut-out characters I had moved around like pieces on a chessboard, forcing an unworkable plot upon them. The new version of the story grew organically from living, breathing people with motivations, desires, goals, heartaches. Of course, the agent couldn't have represented me; what I'd sent him was unpublishable!
That experience taught me to learn what I could from all critiques, especially the harsh ones. Underneath the anger and frustration lies the kernel of truth, assuming the critic is not a troll, destroying for destruction's sake, and this agent was definitely not a troll. Writing is a craft, and the more we perfect our techniques, the better our novels, short stories, poetry, and nonfiction will become.